Fashion Matters: Why academics should care about what they wear 

By Ben Barry (@drbenbarry)

This article was originally published on The Chronicle of Higher Education.

in-postAcademics get a bad rap for their sartorial choices. More than two decades ago the fashion historian Valerie Steele scoffed that “academics may be the worst-dressed middle-class occupational group.” Today this perception remains intact, as even campus security — certainly not the arbiters of fashion and style — label us “planet corduroy.”

It’s not that academics don’t care about clothes. Some of us feel pressured to don a deliberate uniform. Choosing rumpled jackets or stretched-out jumpers (or sweaters, in American parlance) is our way of telling the world we’re too focused on matters of the mind to care about what we put on our bodies. The teachings of Descartes — not of the runway — seemingly guide our wardrobe decisions.

Over the years, the outfits of female academics have been particularly criticized for their dreary earth tones and boxy cuts, but sexism has required them to trade in sartorial flair, let alone anything revealing, for intellectual credibility. Fashion, after all, is associated with the frivolous, the vain, and the feminine, and is therefore of little value in Western culture.

fashion matters 2As a queer scholar, I know firsthand the advantages of wearing some form of masculine clothing. Understated blazers and button-downs can shield marginalized academics — whose identities would otherwise stand out as different in the university — from the discrimination that often discounts and diminishes our ideas and contributions.

By suppressing our individual style, we think we’re showcasing our intellectual worthiness. But instead we’re giving in to the shame of being perceived as anti-academic by others and ourselves. We are reinforcing the assumption that fashion, and all that it represents, is frivolous. Even worse, we embody uniformity when everything we do and value as scholars is based on creativity, uniqueness, and originality.

I believe our fashion choices matter. What we wear can be another tool to educate students, colleagues, and the public because fashion is a lens to see the world. Our clothing choices are intellectual pursuits that reflect our values, identities, and knowledge. Even more, our clothes affect how we feel about ourselves and how we perform at work.

From how the cotton in our shirts was grown to who spun it, the manufacture of our clothes influences people and the planet. What we wear are concrete examples of labor ethics and environmental sustainability. I buy my jackets from a secondhand store because I know these pieces will have a new life in my wardrobe rather than in a landfill.

When buying new clothes, I’ll use one of many digital applications to check the ethical rating of the brand and see if its production was associated with child labor. Whether you’re in international development, gender studies, environmental sciences, or other fields, issues related to fashion production very likely intersect. The clothing on our bodies provides openings to discuss how each of us engages with the topics that we teach.

Academics in the humanities and social sciences regularly deal with questions of identity. While the theories we lecture about examine the power of aesthetics to disrupt norms, our clothes too often suggest the opposite. But the things we wear are living expressions of how identity is individual, diverse, and socially constructed. Our clothes bring theories about identity to life and also extend our ability to teach these concepts because the ways we combine fabrics, colors, and silhouettes visually articulate identity beyond the boundaries of words.

I’ll wear a navy blazer and gray tie one day and a black leather jacket and black kilt the next. Dressing in ways that disrupt expectations on campus can fill me with anxiety. I feel the stares — imagined or not. But what gives me confidence to shun norms in favor of floral prints and sequenced mesh is the belief that my attire will not only teach students about the performance of identity but also empower them to be themselves.

Most designers aren’t just making clothes to protect us from the sun and snow but are sharing their thoughts about the world. My wardrobe has pieces from Wale Oyejide, who incorporates motifs from his African heritage, and Wear Your Label, which embroiders slogans challenging the stigma of mental disabilities. By discovering the artistic vision behind our clothes, we can use it to tell stories about history and injustice. Whether we are in line for a coffee or a seminar, what we wear can turn into conversation starters about the world.

Fashion doesn’t only express who you are to others but also to yourself. Psychologists have coined the term “enclothed cognition” to describe how clothing alters the mood and mind-set of its wearers. When I step into a faculty meeting in my purple velvet knee-length coat, I feel like a king — empowered, poised, and ready to assert my opinions. The symbolic meaning of clothes combined with how they feel against our skin influences whether or not we feel ready to deliver a compelling lecture.

By dismissing our fashion choices as superficial and irrelevant to academic life, we miss a vital opportunity to unleash the power of clothes to improve our work. We also reinforce the false belief that what is considered feminine is lesser instead of equally important to understanding the world. For the clothes we wear do not only cover our outside but also convey our inside — our principles, identities, and feelings.

So tomorrow morning, when you reach inside your closet and choose something to wear, I encourage you to have fun with fashion and ask yourself: How can our clothes introduce new ways of thinking into the academy and the world?

Ben Barry (@DrBenBarry) is an associate professor of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto.